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What makes a site sacred?

  • 04 September 2006
  St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is introduced by a marmoreal document called the Principle and Foundation: “The human person is made to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by so doing to save their soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other things in so far as they help towards one’s end.”

The statement has been criticised for being cold in the way it speaks of 'other things'. It encourages people to be calculating and heavy in the way they relate to the world and to other people, and to forget that the world is sacred. In my own occasional moods of self-examination, however, I wonder whether it breeds a rather indecent lightness of spirit.

I wonder how the Principle influences my response to stories about funny business in the Catholic Church. July marked the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul’s strong speech in Alice Springs, in which he endorsed the dignity and the right to land of indigenous Australians. To mark the occasion a Mass was celebrated in the largely indigenous parish of Redfern. People had asked prior to the celebrations if they could put a mural in the church, but their request was refused. Before the Mass, a group broke into the Church, with the result that when the community arrived the next day, they saw facing them a large and splendidly executed mural. It enshrined the Pope’s words in Alice Springs. The visiting celebrant innocently blessed the mural and prayed that it remain there in perpetuity. The parish priest commented that this mob knew nothing about obedience. But he was left with an unpalatable dilemma: leave the mural there, or whitewash Pope John Paul II.

Now any sober-minded person would judge that these doings were disgraceful, and that they clearly echoed Adam’s raid on the apple tree. But my response was not to mourn at such great sinfulness, but to laugh loud and long. The story made my day. After due reflection, however, I recognised that the reason why I had failed to respond with proper gravity was that this story is really less about obedience than about property. It is about how we use things, including churches, to praise, love and reverence God. It is full of ironies—of invading